Martin Van Schaak: New York’s Purveyor of Fine Handbags

“Too rarefied to operate from anything as public as a showroom, he preferred to call on his society clientèle in their own homes. Any bag that bears his name is a fortuitous find.”—Tracy Tolkien, fashion collector, author and consultant.

Mr. Martin Van Schaak, the most elusive master, whose customers—including Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Marlene Dietrich—represented the crème de la crème of New York, Los Angeles, Texas, and Washington society, was designing his novelty purses for over half a century, starting in the early 1940s. They say his wonderful, custom-made creations, made exclusively per order with the personality of a client in mind, have never been available in retail stores.

I acquired the taste for the exquisite novelties by the maestro, when I had a rare chance to purchase my first “Martin Van Schaak” for my collection. It was a sublime, ca 1966, navy java-lizard satchel lined with emerald-green leather, which I bought from the estate of an heir of the Reynolds aluminum fortune. That bag was so different from anything I’ve seen before—a true masterpiece of sophistication and sheer beauty!

Since then, I’ve been trying to buy every intact vintage piece by the incomparable Martin Van Schaak I could find and afford. In 2001, his new custom-made creations cost between $1,200 and $2,000. His vintage pieces from the 1950s and 1960s could be found for several hundred dollars, when in good to excellent condition. His extremely rare, unique alligator pieces in mint condition could go as high as several thousand dollars apiece.

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